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Q&A with Katie Barber, CTRS

For the last 11 years, Katie Barber, CTRS, has worked as a child life specialist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU’s (CHoR) ASK Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic, where she sees an average of 21 children a day with cancer, sickle cell disease and other blood disorders. As one of two hematology and oncology team members whose positions are funded by the ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation through Children’s Hospital Foundation, Katie works directly with the medical team to support children and families. She is one of five child life specialists at CHoR but is the only one dedicated to outpatient care and works solely with hematology and oncology patients.

What is child life, and what does a child life specialist do?

My job as a child life specialist is to make the outpatient experience as stress-free as possible for our patients. I use medical play to teach kids about what they are going through and work to decrease their anxiety. Depending on a patient’s age and developmental level, I may encourage them to do art projects or engage in pretend play to help them express their feelings. Sometimes it’s as simple as holding a child’s hand and distracting them while they have a procedure. Other times it’s teaching kids how to find their voice and speak up for what makes them comfortable. I also supervise our clinic volunteers, attend special events, accept toy and supply donations for child life and escort special visitors at clinic.

How does child life work as part of the hematology and oncology team at CHoR to support patients and families?

Our clinic is different because our kids are often with us for years during treatment and even after they transition to survivorship services. Because I get to know our patients on a social and emotional level, I see another side of our kids and am able to share that perspective with the rest of the team as I participate in daily rounds. I’m here every day so I’m a familiar face for our kids and families and have time to get to know what makes each of our kids who they are. I think I have the best job in the clinic. Half of the kids don’t even realize I work here. They think I’m just here to play.

Why is child life an important part of the care patients receive at CHoR?

I think it’s so important because we are here to remind our kids that they are kids. They are not a cancer kid but a kid who has cancer. We talk about kid stuff first. I know what teams they like and what their favorite color is. If a child is having a bad day, I find out why and try to turn their day around. I also get to attend special events outside of the clinic like holiday parties, which helps me strengthen my relationships with children and their families. These relationships are important because they help kids and families feel comfortable talking to me about any issue.